Are you in Right Relation?

by Laura B. Johnson, PhD

Flowering buds on a baby frost peach tree.

What it means to live in right relation

A few years ago I came across a speech said to have been delivered by an unnamed Hopi elder in Oraibi, Arizona, in Navajo Nation; I’ve seen it titled ‘A Hopi Elder Speaks’ as well as the ‘Hopi Elders’ Prophecy.’ It seems it began appearing on the Internet around the end of the 20th century, and though it’s been reproduced in a number of places, it is difficult to track down clear, definitive origins. A few forums point to its uncritical circulation, unsure if it was spoken by the Hopi at all or, if it was, whether it was intended to apply to anyone beyond the tribe. Still others suggest that it may be a construct drawn from several sources rather than a singular speech.

While this necessary context raises important questions, it nevertheless remains true that when I came across this piece a few years ago, it affected me deeply. And so I move forward with the disclaimer that this is entirely my personal interpretation and response; any sense of appropriation or exploitation is certainly not the intent. It is rather a truth of mine that I would like to tell.

Things to Be Considered

In this piece, the speaker begins by stating that the hour has now arrived, and that there are things that must be considered, which are offered in question form:

Where are you living?
 What are you doing?
 What are your relationships?
 Are you in right relation?
 Where is your water?

They then explain that there is now a fast-flowing river that will evoke fear in many who will try to hold to the shore, and that those who do will ‘feel torn apart’ and suffer greatly. They continue to assure their listeners that rather than cling to the shore, to what is known and seemingly certain, we must instead let go and allow the current to take us toward a destination unknown, keeping our heads above water, our eyes open, flowing in a spirit of community and truthfulness, of collaboration and celebration.

At the time of my reading the questions posed as things to be considered resonated intimately and strikingly in my own life. In the weeks before I’d left a place and a person and a life, all or which I cared about deeply, all of which had ceased to feel like my own. And so I’d pulled myself from a path I knew well and had traveled for some time and was forging one anew, however haltingly and awkwardly and messily, and it was pointing me toward the Northwest, toward new landscapes and relationships and communities, toward a place and a person and a life that brought me joy and felt like home. Along the way, whenever I began to doubt my choices, when guilt tried to drown me, when the old, safe, familiar path called me back, I remembered these questions, I breathed them in; they became like mantra, like prayer.

Now several years later I have fallen into the rhythm of my new life in a remote corner of Northern California, and I can see why I was propelled off of one path and onto another, and I am grateful to have summoned the strength to change course. And these questions, these passages, are penned in my mother’s calligraphy and framed on one of the walls of my house near the water. When I remember I revisit them, I check in with them, feeling them again, answering them anew.

Recently one of them shone out to me as if making itself known for the first time:

Are you in right relation?

Now disentangled from the agony of a dying relationship, this question no longer seemed to be about that person, or any one person, or even about solely human-centric relationships at all. This question was different than the one that proceeded it; rather than asking, ‘What are your relationships?’ perhaps more curiously it asked, ‘Are you in right relation?’

What species activities, daily reaffirmations of connection, ritual practices of relation, might we cultivate as we heal and shift our culture, our selves, our world?

And since then I’ve returned repeatedly to this question, pondering and probing it, considering its application in my own life and in the world. It resonates deeply with ecofeminism and care ethics, theories I engage with in my academic work, as well as with permaculture and yoga, philosophies close to my heart and my personal daily practice. I view these relational frameworks and practices as complementary and entangled, and in the remainder of this essay I attempt to briefly puzzle them together, allowing them to resonate collaboratively as related to this question of what it means to be in right relation.

Ecofeminism and an Ethic of Care

Relations are at the heart of ecological feminism, a framework critiquing assumptions of Western culture that categorize and delink humans from nature, male from female, reason from emotion, mind from body, white European from ‘other,’ and so on — false dualisms that break relations and fragment human consciousness (Griffin, 1995). But in truth these relations are not lost, they are obscured behind a veil blurring realities of ‘commingling’ (Griffin, 1995) and embodiment, of interconnection and interdependence, perpetuating linked social and ecological crises evident everywhere in the world. Ecofeminists point to this veil, they give it name and form and attempt to pull it back, to upset myths of individualism and to articulate the reality of relations, giving “voice to the sensitivity that in climbing a mountain, one is doing something in relationship with an ‘other,’ an ‘other’ whom one can come to care about and treat respectfully’ (Warren, 1990, 143). In this worldview, all things are done in the context of relations, understood to be “constitutive of what it is to be a human” (Warren, 1990, 143); to be alive is to be relational.

Knowing this, then, how might we live in ‘right relation?’ Here I join many ecofeminists and other critical scholars in turning to an ethic of care. Care redirects us from false separation and points us toward a post-capitalist politics (Jarosz, 2011) rooted in “an ethic of responsibility extended to the rest of nature” (Mortari, 2004, 111). It challenges us to find new ways of thinking and being that prioritize our responsibilities to others, human and nonhuman, seen and unseen (Popke, 2005), near and far, to cultivate a social ontology of connection (Lawson, 2007) that fosters a mutual well-being, an interdependent flourishing (Cuomo, 1998). Fisher and Tronto (1990) famously defined caring as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves and the environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (4). This resonates with the need for what Held (2006) called “daily reaffirmations of connection” (30): What species activities, daily reaffirmations of connection, ritual practices of relation, might we cultivate as we heal and shift our culture, our selves, our world?

Ritual Practices of Relation

Permaculture and yoga offer philosophies and tools that I draw from in my daily life, my personal ritual practices of relation. Permaculture is the process of re-imagining spaces using principles and practices designed for innovative ecological regeneration and productive landscapes that place collaboration and relationship at center. A way to think about creating human landscapes that mimic nature, it applies broadly from designing yardscapes and farmscapes to shifting cultural and socio-political landscapes, to rethinking how humans exist in and relate to the world. Permaculture focuses less on “objects themselves than on the careful design of relationships among them — interconnections — that will create a healthy, sustainable whole” (Hemenway, 2000, 5). My partner and I practice permaculture on our emerging homestead when we shift from spaces of monoculture to polyculture, when we catch rain and turn what might be considered waste into new life, when we consider connections among plants, soil, insects, animals, our selves, our community; we practice permaculture every time we situate our lives and our actions within the wider web of life on this planet. Permaculture requires us to rethink and remake our living spaces, to foster collaborative and supportive community structures and institutions, to shift from an individual mentality to a relational one.

‘Permaculture requires us to rethink and remake our living spaces, to foster collaborative and supportive community structures and institutions, to shift from an individual mentality to a relational one.’

(We) practice permaculture on our emerging homestead when we shift from spaces of monoculture to polyculture, when we catch rain and turn what might be considered waste into new life, when we consider connections among plants, soil, insects, animals, our selves, our community; we practice permaculture every time we situate our lives and our actions within the wider web of life on this planet.

Yoga, meaning union, is not only a physical and mental practice involving breath, meditation, and postures that reconnect mind and body, self and world, individual and universal; it is also an ethical practice rooted in restraints (yamas) and observances (niyamas), guidelines that in yogic philosophy serve as the first two limbs of the eight-fold path (Adele, 2009). These ‘jewels’ are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), nonexcess (brahmacharya), nonpossessiveness (aparigraha), purity (saucha), contentment (santosha), self-discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender (ishvara pranidhana). While these precepts are entangled, interwoven, definitive of and flowing into one another, when reflecting back upon the piece with which this essay began, two stand out to me as particularly important to emphasize here: nonpossessiveness and surrender.

Nonpossessiveness, or nonclinging, can be thought of simply as the ability to let go. As humans we cling to the façade of control, a tendency rooted in fear, despite realities of groundlessness and impermanence, blinding us to new opportunities all around us: “Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. If we can fall back to the breath and watch the belly rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation, we can feel the truth of the transience of all things” (Adele, 2009, 92). Aparigraha invites us to “practice divine play, experience full intimacy and contact with the moment, and then to let go so the next thing can come” (Adele, 2009, 92). It invites us to surrender, ishvara pranidhana, to trust the current enough to let it take us: “Our practice is to melt ourselves into the flow of the stream, becoming one with the flow of life. As we relax and release our rigid thoughts and muscles, we can begin to flow with life” (Adele, 2009, 168).

A Polyphonic Assemblage

When contemplating this question of right relation, these are a few of the frameworks, philosophies, practices that speak to me, that have transformed my own thinking and living. All of them, I think, are relevant and useful in our collective pondering of this question, but they are far from the only ones. For this question of right relation has no one right answer; the solutions will be multiple, creative, collaborative, unpredictable, unfolding always. They will be woven together in the multidimensional patchwork of our alternative future. They will require the coming together of different visions and stories, collective imagination and emergent strategies (brown, 2017), inclusive and pluralistic dialogue, the weaving together of seemingly separate strands, a kind of ‘polyphonic assemblage’ described by Anna Tsing (2015) as the ‘gathering of…rhythms as they result from world-making projects, human and not human” (24). They will require dismantling and rebuilding, the crumbling process of letting go, however haltingly and awkwardly and messily, and in the surrender, rebirth.

For this question of right relation has no one right answer; the solutions will be multiple, creative, collaborative, unpredictable, unfolding always. They will be woven together in the multidimensional patchwork of our alternative future.

I recently came across this passage in the short science fiction story ‘Evidence’ by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, published in Octavia’s Brood (brown & Imarisha, 2015), and like the piece with which I began this essay it rang out to me as truth:

“But breathe this deep because this is the message. We did it. We shifted the paradigm. We rewrote the meaning of life with our living. And this is how we did it. We let go. And then we got scared and held on and then we let go again. Of everything that would shackle us to sameness. Of our deeply held belief that our lives could be measured or disconnected from anything. We let go and re-taught ourselves to breathe the presence of the energy that we are that cannot be destroyed, but only transformed and transforming everything.”

“Breathe deep, beloved young and frightened self, and then let go. And you will hold on. So then let go again.”

Let us flow now in a spirit of community and truthfulness, of collaboration and celebration.

Laura Johnson, PhD, is a geography lecturer, freelance writer, yoga teacher, and activist. She lives with her partner in Eureka, CA, where they are building a permaculture homestead, operating a cottage food business, and cohabiting with their two dogs and two cats. Her recent work has appeared in Lion’s Roar;Taproot;the Journal of Wild Culture; and Gender, Place, and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography.

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Works Cited

Adele, Deborah. The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Duluth: On-Word Bound Books, LLC, 2009.

brown, adrienne marie. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Oakland: AK Press, 2017.

brown, adrienne marie, & Walidah Imarisha, eds. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Oakland: AK Press, 2015.

Cuomo, Chris. Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing. London: Routledge, 1998.

Fisher, Berenice & Joan Tronto. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring.” In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives, edited by Emily Abel & Margaret K. Nelson, 35–62. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.

Griffin, Susan. Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society: The Eros of Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Hartford: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009.

Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Jarosz, Lucy. “Nourishing Women: Toward a Feminist Political Ecology of Community Supported Agriculture in the United States.” Gender, Place & Culture 18, no. 3 (May 2011): 307–326.

Lawson, Victoria. “Geographies of Care and Responsibility.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97, no. 1 (February 2007): 1–11.

Mortari, Luigina. “Educating to Care.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 9 (January 2004): 109–122.

Popke, Jeff. “Geography and Ethics: Everyday Mediations Through Care and Consumption.” Progress in Human Geography, 30, no. 4 (August 2006): 504–512.

Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Warren, Karen. “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism.” Environmental Ethics, 12, no. 10 (June 1990): 125–146.

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